Focusing on Women in the Fight Against Narcotics in Afghanistan

An Afghan National Army commando with 3rd Company, 1st Special Operations Kandak, looks through his scope as he patrols through a poppy field during a clearing operation in Khugyani District, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, May 9, 2013. Photo Credit: U.S. Army Photo by Staff Sgt. Kaily Brown.

In June 2018, the Office of the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) published a 270-page report entitled “Counternarcotics: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan.” The report found that after allocating $8.62 billion from 2002 to 2017, “no counterdrug program undertaken by the United States, its coalition partners, or the Afghan government resulted in lasting reductions in poppy cultivation or opium production.”[i] Of the funds directed towards counternarcotics efforts, $110.3 million has gone to “demand reduction programs.” According to a UN report, the number of opium and heroin addicts jumped to between 1.9 million and 2.4 million, doubling in five years.[ii] That’s 12 percent of the population.[iii]

If those figures are not disturbing enough, the SIGAR report fails to address the massive spike in addiction among women and children, mentioning the word “women” only once in its nearly 300 pages. In 2015, according to the UN’s report, 9.5 percent of women were drug addicted, a 300 percent increase from 2009.[iv] Among children 14 years and younger, the number is up to 9.2 percent.[v]

Mirroring its two decade-long fight against the Taliban, the U.S. has pursued counterinsurgency methods in its fight against narcotics, like eradication and interdiction, only to further alienate and enrage the very Afghans whose hearts and minds they seek to win over. The spike in addicted women and children, however, presents a novel way to address the drug crisis: supporting efforts to fight drug addiction among women and children through women-led rehabilitation centers and employment opportunities. Improving the lives of Afghan women through a strong, women-led effort will serve as both a vital humanitarian action and slow the spread of addiction that is keeping the Taliban funded and Afghanistan in perpetual poverty.  

Combined with poverty and hopelessness, addiction spread like a virus. Men became addicted, which then frequently leads to addiction among their wives. Women who used opium while pregnant or exposed their children to secondhand smoke then addicted their children.[vi] Five years ago, addicted men would congregate under bridges and other addict colonies. Today, as the epidemic has spread to domestic life, drug-centered households have proliferated, straining economic, social, and family relations.[vii] Women dependent on narcotics have little recourse: many are confined to their homes and dependent on their very men that got them addicted. While treatment options are scarce for their husbands, women, bound by tradition and fearing discrimination, rarely seek assistance at all.

Of the 123 drug treatment centers in Afghanistan, there are only 13 female-only options, compared with 70 men-only centers. The efficacy of the women’s shelters is significant. Funded by the US government and run by the Ministry of Public Health, the National Center for the Treatment of Addiction for Women and Children in Kabul treats and houses Afghan women for 45-day rounds of therapy and detoxification at no cost.[viii] Locked and guarded, women are not allowed out and men are not allowed in. Children can also be treated for addiction at the facilities.[ix] As addiction spreads and women gain more options for safe treatment, they will be more likely to come forward. According to Dr. Shahpoor Yousef in an NPR report, women are becoming more frank: “Nobody could be upfront and say, ‘Yes, I am addicted.’ But now, the numbers are growing.”[x]

The U.S. has always used women’s rights as a justification for the war in Afghanistan. Addressing the drug epidemic directly through the funding and support of treatment centers like the one discussed above will make Afghan women equal partners in building a more stable and secure Afghanistan. As the scholar Amy Caiazza points out, “Because of women’s central roles in caring for their families, and women activists’ resulting focus on social welfare, including women’s perspectives can also encourage more stability, growth, and well-being.”[xi]

If the U.S. and the international community allow addiction to spread among the women of Afghanistan, the already fraught social fabric of the nation could be rendered irreparable. While addiction among unemployed men keeps the nation in perpetual poverty, addicted women bring the scourge of opium and heroin into the household, dooming the children to either become addicted themselves or watch as their future falls apart before their eyes. When women are less able to care for their families, societies as a whole become more unstable as the number of families affected grows.[xii]

Addressing Afghanistan’s drug problem through women-led treatment centers and economic opportunities can help break the cycle of perpetual poverty in the country. Women free from addiction will be able to support themselves and their children through dignified work and help foster a new generation of Afghans that can alleviate the economic and social hopelessness so prevalent across the country. In supporting these treatments and economic opportunities for women, the U.S. can ensure children avoid the extreme generational poverty that follows them into adulthood. 

While the amount of money that the Taliban takes in from the drug trade is contested, US officials have determined that the drug trade in Helmand Province alone provides about 60 percent of the Taliban’s funding.[xiii] Shifting focus from eradicating the supply of cultivated poppy to ending domestic demand for poppy would limit the flow of money going to the Taliban while creating a strong and dignified class of Afghans, forming the foundation of a more secure and prosperous country.  

Tackling the epidemic of addicted women and children is straightforward. First, like the treatment center the U.S. is funding in Kabul, more women-led and women-only treatment centers need to be opened and funded by the US government. Second, the U.S. needs to invest its vast resources in growing and supporting more women-led businesses, both for recovering addicts and women who are not able to support their children on their own. These small steps will go a long way treating the nearly 1.7 million addicted women and children in Afghanistan, limiting Taliban funding, and creating a foundation for the future of a secure and prosperous Afghanistan.  


[i] Office of the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan, “Counternarcotics: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan,” June 2018.

[ii] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “2015 Afghanistan Drug Report,” Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Ministry of Counter Narcotic, December 9, 2015.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Diaa Hadid and Khwaga Ghani, “Women and children are the emerging face of drug addiction in Afghanistan,” NPR, October 29, 2019.

[vii] Pamela Constable, “Opium use booms in Afghanistan, creating a ‘silent tsunami’ of addicted women,” Washington Post, June 19, 2017.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Diaa Hadid and Khwaga Ghani, “Women and children are the emerging face of drug addiction in Afghanistan,” NPR, October 29, 2019.

[xi] Amy Caiazza, “Why gender matters in understanding September 11: Women, militarism, and violence,” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, November 2001.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Office of the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan, “Counternarcotics: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan,” June 2018.

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